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Preaching patience Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

When the times get tough for Russ Burns, he flashes back to a time when he was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and faced much more dire circumstances than anything he’ll likely ever face as the president at Clayco.

“I was flying over the water, way away from land, and we had smoke in the cockpit,” Burns says.

“I distinctly remember that panic that hits. You just think, ‘Oh my goodness, what good is going to come from this?’ We had a country off to the side of us, the only place we could really get to at that moment that was totally hostile to us. So we couldn’t go there. You have this moment and you say, ‘OK, I’m either going to panic or I’m going to do what I’ve been trained to do and I’m going to get out of this.”

Burns chose the latter, fell back on his training and managed to get the plane to safe territory. The experience serves as a constant reminder to him not to panic when trouble arises but rather to always be thinking about his next move.

“Even when business is good, that’s the way I look at it,” Burns says. “I don’t sit around and say, ‘The economy is much worse today, and that requires me to be more afraid.’ I’m genuinely coming in every day and trying to make this company better than it was the day before. … I’m certainly aware of what’s going on, but I’m not going to focus on the smoke. I’m going to focus on how to get the smoke out and how to get to where I’m headed.”

Burns took over as Clayco’s president on an interim basis in August 2007, removing the “interim” title in January 2008. He says it would have been easy to get carried away preparing for the job, particularly in light of a slowing economy that was gaining speed in its descent.

“You feel the pressure,” Burns says, before reiterating his advice for pressure situations. “Just relax. It’s when you do that, that you produce your best results anyway. Then you’re believable. Then you’re in the business producing results and people say, ‘I believe that guy. He’s credible, and he knows what he is doing.’”

Burns’ goal has been to convey his confidence in Clayco to his employees and to keep them focused on the customer and not the economy. Here are some of the things Burns did at Clayco in his first full year to make that happen and help the 500-employee construction firm hit $770 million in 2008 revenue.

Talk about solutions

In any organization, the biggest threat to success is uncertainty.

“Uncertainty creates insecurity and fear, and that drains people,” Burns says. “It’s really a cancer beyond the unsettledness of it. It’s a cancer in the sense that employees are distracted from giving you the excellence and delivering the excellence that they are accustomed to doing.”

Clayco has developed a very strong financial base with geographic and product diversity that insulates it from being too dependent on any single market, customer or type of work. But Burns says the economy’s performance at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 has everyone concerned.

You need to talk about the concerns that employees have about how the tough times will affect their job and the company as a whole. But you can’t dwell on it.

“We are sitting down with people in small groups and talking to people one on one,” Burns says. “We are basically creating venues where people can talk about things and get answers. But then it’s saying, ‘OK, here. Now we’ve talked about it. We can come back and talk about it again, but between here and there, let’s go and deliver excellence because that’s how we best deal with this market.’”

You make the dialogue effective by being genuine and by staying away from clichés.

“We don’t sit there and say, ‘Well, I don’t know, but we’re just going to work through it,’” Burns says. “We talk very specifically about staying on task. We talk very specifically about new initiatives that we’re doing to make us better that relate to how we design projects, how we manage projects and computer software and hardware to be able to facilitate that in a way that we’ll be leading the industry.

“We’re investing the time because we believe now is the time to do it. When they see that happening, they say, ‘Look, we’re not sitting here just trying to survive. We’re pressing forward to gain market share.’ That’s encouraging to people. People want to be part of that sort of thing. It’s getting it out there, but it’s also saying, ‘Now guys, what are we going to do to get out of this and to lead ourselves through this?’”

Lead with your heart

In challenging times, it’s more important than ever to build relationships with your employees. They need to be able to come to you with concerns and know you well enough to have faith in your leadership ability.

Burns says it’s key to stay on task and keep focusing on the customer, but you need to show your employees that you care about them, as well, and that can start with a simple conversation.

“There is something cathartic about being able to just talk like a human being to each other,” Burns says. “You talk about your kids. You talk about where you are from. … If, as the leader, I’m candid with them and open with them consistently, it makes them feel that it’s safe to be open and candid with me. If it’s treated right, you can foster that process. There’s nothing that makes the bad things go away. It’s just (the bad things) are put in their place and it allows us to stay on task, which is really key in these times.”

If you’re just trying to show your employees that you care about them, you’ll probably fail. That caring and compassion has to be genuine and come from your heart in order for them to buy in to it and believe you have their best interests in mind.

“Everyone says they care and everyone says they love their employees, but I have to challenge myself and ask, ‘Do I really care about my employees?’” Burns says. “It’s a very real thing to say. ‘Do I care for these people?’ People know you, and they know when you are just saying it. When they know you do care, it shatters pretense and it shatters barriers. You have to work at it, and you have to make yourself available.”

As you get out and about in your workplace and talk to people, they’ll start to talk to each other and let their peers know that you are approachable. But again, Burns says it needs to be part of who you are and not a strategy in your day planner.

“Part of my gut tells me if you have to think about it too much, you’re probably not doing it right,” Burns says. “If I’m a credible leader, then being out there and being able to do things and being a substantive leader, it should almost be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That reassurance is going to take place. … I don’t sit and say, ‘OK, today, I want to do things to ease people’s minds so I’m going to do this, this and this. And then I’m going to do my everyday activities.’ I think they are mutually inclusive.”

You need to be cognizant that you’re always sending a message, whether you are giving a speech or just walking back to your office.

“If you’re out doing your day-to-day and you’re not mindful that people are watching you every moment, you’re not thinking about your position,” Burns says. “How is he answering this? What does he think about that? You’re impacting those things while you’re doing your regular work.”

The connection between you and your people is not something that you can go out and look for, in most cases.

“If you go out looking for it, you are never going to find it,” Burns says. “Those things just seem to happen. There are some days when you realize, ‘Wow, this is working.’ There are some days when you think, ‘My stars, could I be any further from where I need to be?’ But that is the nature of leadership. I’ve never found it when I was looking for it.”

The reality is that leadership presence is something that takes time to establish.

“People look at track record,” Burns says. “The way to develop that is honesty. It’s integrity. It’s leading with open ears and then when you make a mistake, being very open and honest about it but not getting dragged down in the dirt and not getting so focused on the mistake that you forget your job is to lead. You really get right back up, you dust yourself off and you keep going. People respect that, especially when you then get success after that. Then over time, the trend is there.”

Stay focused on the customer

At the end of the day, getting your employees to open up and being visible to them in the workplace does no good if the focus of your business and the focus of the majority of your conversations are not on the customer.

In a tough economy, focusing on the customer should be the root of everything that you do.

“There’s plenty of companies that have wonderfully happy employees that aren’t making money and aren’t delivering results,” Burns says. “There’s no future in that, no matter how happy they are. That business model fails. Everything has got to be about delivering excellence. Everything has got to be about delivering a deliverable that’s better than the market and that the client is ecstatic about receiving. That’s where you keep your eye. If you get your eye too caught up in just the environment, you’ll miss it.”

You need to get your employees engaged in your business, and you need to build trust in order for them to buy in to your leadership and give their best for the company. You need to work through their concerns, particularly in a tough economy.

But if the end goal of your efforts isn’t to provide the best service to the customer, it won’t work.

“If every conversation has something to do with clients and deliverables, something good is going to come of it,” Burns says. “If you’re not talking about a client or a deliverable, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why are we talking about this?’”

If you want to maintain a focus on the customer, then get out there and talk about it. But talk about it with an attitude of collaboration.

“You as the leader need to plug into your core group, not bring your core group to plug into you,” Burns says. “You go out there and you plug into them and make sure you understand and make sure they understand. Then you leave and let them do their job. … I think sometimes we do a bad thing when we draw them in and pull them up and put them on display. That’s not what made them good. What made them good was what they were doing out there producing those results.

“Leadership is living out a credible witness to what it is you want your life to be about. People are either going to follow you or they’re not. To try to institute something that says, ‘OK, this is how you do it,’ I’m just not a big believer in that.”

Burns believes it is that focus that will make the difference for Clayco.

“We believe those who stay on task and deliver the excellence that we’ve been delivering for the past 23 years, we will gain market share,” Burns says. “If we train that on a market that’s really not as focused as it should be, we can gain market share.”

How to reach: Clayco, www.claycorp.com or (314) 429-5100